Washington State's North Olympic Peninsula is ripe for cool climate wine grape production.
Grower Tom Miller helps Kathy Charlton unload his grapes that were grown locally for Olympic Cellar's Nouveau wine.
Kathy Charlton, motivated by findings of a recent climate and landscape study, hopes that more growers will join her in planting wine grapes on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. The study concluded that cool-climate viticulture is a viable option for the Olympic Peninsula.
Charlton, owner and manager of Olympic Cellars in Port Angeles, spearheaded the $15,000 study. She helped raise funds for the study from the community, which included the City of Port Angeles, the Economic Development Council of Clallam County, and numerous businesses and peninsula wineries.
The North Olympic Peninsula is a young, and still largely unproven grape growing-region in Washington, said Dr. Greg Jones, who led the study. Jones, a Southern Oregon University professor and research climatologist, has studied the impact of climate on the suitability of wine grape regions worldwide. In conducting the study, he modeled the climate and landscape and inventoried the areas suitable for viticulture. A variety of factors were analyzed, including topographical influences, soil, land-use zoning, and heat accumulation limits for growing grapes.
Jones found that the North Olympic Peninsula region contains almost 14,000 acres of landscapes with good to ideal topography—elevation between 200 to 600 feet, slopes between 5 to 20 percent, and high solar radiation potential. The climate of the region is moderate due to its proximity to the ocean, and though precipitation is variable, many of the suitable areas are in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains and receive from 15 to 30 inches annually compared with 200 inches in other parts of the Olympic Peninsula. Growing seasons are typically longer than 180 days, with little frost pressure. Growing degree-days for some of the best landscapes ranged from 1,400 to 2,300 units.
He recommended the following grape varieties for the Olympic Peninsula:
White—Madeleine Angevine, Sylvaner, Siegerrebe, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Müller Thurgau, Pinot Blanc, and Gewürztraminer.
Red—Pinot Noir, Zweigelt, Garanoir, Leon Milot, Agria, Regent, Marechal Foch, and others.
Jones noted that many of the recommended varieties have been grown successfully in the region and in trials at Washington State University's Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon.
He believes the North Olympic Peninsula should benefit from warming climate trends that will make the region even more viable for wine grape production in the future.
Charlton can picture the surrounding hillsides planted to vineyards. As the unofficial cheerleader of the Olympic Peninsula's wine grape potential, she takes every opportunity to champion the report by speaking to organizations, in hopes of attracting growers. With a long history of winemaking at Olympic Cellars, Charlton has a strong commitment to help the area fulfill its wine potential.
Nearly 30 years ago, Gene Neuharth planted a vineyard and started a winery in Sequim. It was the first winery on the Olympic Peninsula and one of the first 15 wineries in Washington State, according to Charlton. "While the vineyard didn't thrive, Neuharth Winery did," she said.
In 1999, Charlton and partners Molly Rivard and Libby Sweetser bought the winery, which had been relocated to Port Angeles and renamed Olympic Cellars. Under their ownership, annual production has grown to 3,200 cases, with wine sold under three different labels. They are best known for their "Working Girl" wines that depict the personality of each owner.
"There's a lot of interest in the report from local folks," she said, adding that viticulture and enology classes are being taught through the Clallam County Extension office.
"We're not ever going to be eastern Washington viticulture," she said. "But if you look at the fabric of what we have—local products like lavender, seafood, berries, small dairies, and farms—adding local wine is essential to completing the culinary experience."
There is a strong regional market for local foods and the pairing of local wines with local foods, she said. "There's opportunity to showcase a different style of wine than what's grown in eastern Washington. It's all about pairing local wines with local food."
Credible wine awards have been given to several wineries in Washington's Puget Sound appellation for their cool climate wines, she added.
In 2006, Olympic Cellars made its first wine from local Madeleine Angevine grapes grown by Tom Miller, owner of Dungeness Bay Vineyard in Sequim.
"To see the response to our measly 35 cases of Nouveau wine was amazing," Charlton said, noting that the wine sold out almost instantly.
The Olympic Peninsula region, with seven wineries and a few cideries stretching from Port Townsend to Port Angeles, has plenty of room to grow. There are few vineyards in the Puget Sound area growing cool climate varieties.
"We're not strong in number, but we have a uniqueness with our wines that other regions don't have," Charlton said. "When you taste the cool weather varietals, the wines are crisp and light and have a fragrance that stands out when paired with local food like Dungeness crab."
Olympic Cellars recently planted its first vines in a trial plot near its Port Angeles winery. Fourteen acres surround the winery, giving them room to grow grapes for estate wines. The small test plot has vines of Madeleine Angevine, Madeleine Sylvaner, Siegerrebe, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and a Pinot Noir clone (Precoce) that ripens early.
Although 2007 was a cool summer for them and grapes were struggling to reach suitable Brix, she said that they have the option of making sparkling wine from cool-year vintages.